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Alexander Straub: The Fearless Experimental Chemist

Failures are a normal part of medical research. As a leading cardiovascular researcher, Dr. Alexander Straub keeps going. Instead of giving up, Straub questions why things don’t work. And an experienced chemical scientist, he was also not afraid of blowing up things (but never people, of course), if it meant finding answers.

I think it’s almost a miracle that my parents’ house is still standing.

Dr. Alexander Straub discovered his passion for chemistry as a child, building rockets and launching them.

If friends ask me what happens in a normal research day, I answer: failure. Lots of failure. I’m a medical researcher for cardiovascular diseases. To develop medicines, we choose active ingredients from a library with more than four million substances. But often only 1,000 of them pass initial tests. And if you make a mistake at any point, you may spend years going in the wrong direction.

Nobody can say whether or not you’re close to a breakthrough. Give up? Keep going? It’s a tough call. Even when you get close to finding a solution, the next questions pop up.

Which synthesis routes must we use? How can we get a handle on efficacy, tolerability and solubility? In the case of riociguat, a medicine used to treat two forms of pulmonary hypertension, we needed 2,000 syntheses. For rivaroxaban, an anticoagulant medication to prevent blood clots now sold under the brand name Xarelto, took us around 700 syntheses. To be a researcher means combining the characteristics of a triathlete and a concert pianist – stamina and virtuosity.

And if you are very lucky, the one compound your team discovered years ago will prove successful in the clinic, is approved by authorities and becomes available for patients in local pharmacies around the world.

Setting Fire to the Living Room Furniture

My love of chemistry began as a child. I was given a microscope that I used to examine pollen grains and onion skins. I built rockets and launched them; I also set fire to the living room furniture when an experiment with thermite (a pyrotechnic) got out of control. I also made chlorine gas in my bedroom, which bleached the green from the leaves of the potted plants. Looking back, I think it’s almost a miracle that my parents’ house is still standing.

I won a special prize in the European Philips Contest for Young Scientists and Inventors. Still, I disrupted chemistry class in school because I was bored. Later I received a scholarship from the Robert Bosch Foundation and completed my studies in chemistry “with distinction”.

Learning With all Senses and Admitting Failure

I’ve always been driven to find solutions to complex problems. In chemistry, you can’t just gather experience in theory; you have to actually feel things as well. It’s about the sensual experience – fascinating crystals, strange-smelling chemicals, exciting colors. Researchers need to preserve their sense of curiosity, playfulness and naivety when exploring their surroundings. We ask why and question things that are seemingly unquestionable. The best ideas come to me in the evening, when the laboratory is quiet. That’s when innovations are created.

I encourage my team to try things out, even if they seem far-fetched. It’s always the successes that are publicized, never the failures. But who knows? Perhaps it was the right idea, but we just got one detail wrong. Luck, chance, surprises and intuition can’t be planned. Sometimes, it’s precisely that moment of surprise that is needed in the real process of inventions.

CV DR. ALEXANDER STRAUB

Nov. 1959 Born in Stuttgart / Germany

1978-1989 Studies in Chemistry at University of Stuttgart (supported by a scholarship from the Robert Bosch Foundation)

1987 Master in Organic Chemistry. Thesis: “Synthesis of dihydroxyacetonephosphate for enzyme-catalyzed aldol reactions” in the group of Prof. Effenberger

1989 PhD in Organic Chemistry. Thesis: “Aldolase-catalyzed synthesis of carbohydrates” in the group of Prof. Effenberger

1989-2000 Lab Leader Medicinal Chemistry, Cardiovascular Research, Bayer AG, Wuppertal

2000-2007 Lab Leader Process Research, Bayer AG, Crop Science, Monheim

2007-2008 Chemical Process Development Manager, Bayer AG, Crop Science, Dormagen

2008- current Research Fellow, Medicinal Chemistry, Early Research Cardiology, Bayer AG, Pharmaceuticals, Wuppertal

2009 Member of the team, which discovered rivaroxaban, which was awarded the “Deutsche Zukunftspreis” (Germany's most important innovation award) by the German Federal President in 2009

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